Race Report: The Retto

Almost two months ago I wrote about my Retto Prologue. That blog covers details of the race and my motivation for running it. It may be Well overdue but here is my write-up for the race that took place the following day. I watched the recorded footage of the race on SuperSport (a South African satellite television sports provider) last week and I managed a fraction of a second of airtime as I descended a hill just behind one of the leading ladies, but you will need to read on to find out who…

Race morning started off with a bus trip from our accommodation at Storm’s River to Natures Valley. It was a chilly morning as we waited on the beach for the staggered start to begin so I stood around in my waterproof to keep warm until it was time for me to move into the corral. Setting off with the other three guys in my batch I started out at a fairly brisk pace along the beach and soon was running on my own with some of the earlier seeding batches visible in front of me. Within 500 metres of the start we forded a tributary to wet our feet for the first occasion of the day and then left the beach for the first major climb of the day. Upon reaching the top of the first hill the course followed along the top of the cliff for the longest flat section of the race, and it provided an introduction to the stunning scenery to follow.

I gradually overtook people as I ran and decided to count off the females that I passed as a way to track progress through the field. After more than 5 km along the top of the cliff we commenced our descent to Andre Hut, where hikers stop for their final night. From Andre Hut there was a steep climb, followed by a short cliff-top section, and then another steep descent. From there we continued along beaches and sections of beach-side forest until we reached the famed Bloukrans crossing.

During one of the beach-side sections of trail I was jumping a log across the path when I grazed the top of my foot along a branch only to hear the snap of plastic that I instinctively knew was the sound of my foot pod disconnecting. Sure enough I looked down to find that the foot pod clip was still under the laces but no pod was attached. I decided to give myself a minute to look for it. I started searching the path and brush around the log but soon realised that I was not going to find it. By the time I lost the pod I had overtaken five of the females ahead of me, but one slowed down just enough to ask if everything was alright as I searched. I confirmed that I was fine, gave up the search and took off behind her. The additional problem was that while I normally switch off the auto-pause functionality on my watch during races, I had forgotten to do so on this occasion. Since my foot pod (or lack thereof) now indicated that I was not moving my watch had therefore paused. As I took off along a stretch of technical single track I had the additional complexity of stopping my watch, reconfiguring it to disable auto-pause, and then restarting it. But I was on the move again and heading towards Bloukrans.

As the major river crossing along the route Bloukrans can run below knee height at certain times of the year during low tide, but for the race this year it involved a 50-metre swim across water that was 2 metres deep. As we scrambled along a rocky section towards the river I overtook the fourth-placed female again, reached the water’s edge and quickly jumped in. A line was stretched out across the river so I pulled myself across hand over hand until I could stand and wade out to the shore on the other side. Then, as followed most of the river crossings along the route, we faced another steep climb. During the climb I overtook the third-placed female and soon found myself behind the two leading females: Krissy Moehl and Landie Greyling.

Crossing the Bloukrans River
Crossing the Bloukrans River

Krissy Moehl is one of the best female trail runners in the world and as the current female course record holder for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and former female course record holder for the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run she has proven her ability on extremely challenging courses in terms of total climb. Right on Krissy’s tail was Landie, who is currently one of the best female trail runners in South Africa. When I caught up to the pair of them I was feeling very good and briefly considered passing, but I was ahead of my target pacing and decided to slot in behind them. I then was lucky enough to run along watching the battle for the women’s race unfold. A couple of times as we ran along the television helicopter would swoop in to take footage of the leading women. It was clear that Krissy was stronger on the climbs but Landie was faster on the technical descents. During one of the descents Landie took a more challenging path, slipped on a rock and fell. Rather than taking an opportunity to build up a lead, Krissy stopped, checked that Landie was uninjured and then proceeded to lift her up. Despite having been in the lead, Krissy placed Landie in front and let her take off again, now in first place. As we neared the halfway point and the only aid station on the course, we faced a steep ascent, a short flat section and then a descent to Oakhurst Hut, the day 3 hut on the hiking trail. Krissy took the lead from Landie, and started increasing the pace with an impressive show of foot speed. By the time we reached the aid station Krissy had broken away and I descended just behind Landie, as proven by a very short piece of footage aired on SuperSport.

With the reversing of the course for this year’s race it places the bulk of the challenging climbs in the second half of the race. This meant that although half of the race distance was completed the tough sections were about to start. The second half of the race would feature no long sections of flat trail, making for a lot of ascent and a lot of descent.

Otter Route Profile
Otter Route Profile (the Retto runs left to right)

I started to lag behind Landie (with Krissy now well out of sight) and could feel my quads tiring as I continued on over the relentless hills. At one point I stopped to stretch out my legs due to an oncoming cramp, and not long after I was passed by third-placed female Jacoline Haasbroek (who ended up storming home to take second place). As I reached Scott Hut (day 2 on the hiking trail) I stopped to fill my hydration pack, and found one of the early race leaders Michael Bailey sitting down looking extremely sorry for himself. Possibly due to the fact that there were very few evacuation points along the route, and that they were apparently as difficult to reach as just finishing the course, he did manage to continue and finish the race.

The 7.9 km section to the final hut (or the first hut when hiking in the normal direction) seemed to stretch on for a long time. My legs were tiring and I was clearly slowing down, but without my foot pod I had no idea of pace or distance. I kept looking at the time expecting that the hut would be at the bottom of the next descent. Eventually I reached and passed the hut, which left only 4.8 km to the trailhead at Storm’s River, but it was among the most technical and challenging of the entire race. After a challenging climb to sap most of the remaining energy from weary legs the course descended to the waterfall, which is the end of a common day hike from Storm’s River. I had completed the day hike on a prior trip out to the national park, and recognised where I was shortly after the waterfall when I realised that I had not even glanced up to view it. The path from the waterfall to the trailhead is extremely rocky and uneven and I ended up walking many of these sections.

Eventually I reached the trailhead and the race then included a 1.5 km section of tar to reach the finish line at the far end of Storm’s River. It felt amazingly nice to run on the flat road, and for the first time during the day I started to run past spectators cheering as I went along. A final short decent ended with the finish line right beside a beautiful section of coastline. I crossed the line in 28th position with a time of 5:45:19.

Crossing the Finish Line
Crossing the Finish Line

Krissy Moehl ended up winning the women’s race and described it as kilometre for kilometre one of the toughest she has completed. I would definitely agree with her there, but it is also extremely pretty. I am already signed up next year to try it again, this time in the opposite direction.

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